Letter from Away — December 25, 2021
Friends sometimes don’t know what to say to me, at this time of year.
Relax. I enjoy celebrations that connect to celestial events — longer days, the renewal of springtime — and many religious and spiritual seasons line right up with a phase of the moon or minimum declination of the sun.
When the kids were young, and the older-than-me generation of Auciellos and Barriers (families I married into) was still alive, I not only received cards at this time of year, but I sent out quite a few as well. It’s been years since I lined the the archways of Rise and Shine with cards that stayed up until February.
Another tradition I picked up from my in-laws is the game of Categories. When I mentioned this to one of my daughters, she asked if I meant Scattergories. Once she understood that the latter game is a monetization of the former, she knew exactly what I was talking about.
In the days before Parker Brothers made a boxed set of the game, we each drew a grid on paper — the letters on an agreed-upon word in a column down the left and the categories (we each got to name one) across the top.
I grew up in a competitive Monopoly house. It was just me and my brother, but I learned early that winning was always going to be more important to him. I enjoy table games, and sometimes I win, but it’s more fun for me if there’s conversation and laughter and maybe a little banter.
It is not that winning doesn’t matter to me; it definitely does. Sometimes I get lucky with the cards and occasionally I get lucky with the game. Categories is kind of a vocabulary game and I started collecting words and meanings when I started learning English.
Less patient when I swept into my new family’s Christmas, almost 40 years ago, I plunked my excellent vocabulary right in the middle of the parlor, right there amid the exploded wrapping paper and shiny bits of blister pac. I didn’t take time to notice that part of the well-worked-out banter, already in place, was one sister-in-law’s lifetime of being the vocabulary person in that family.
Not a great way to start. Outside of my birth family, I had never been in a relationship longer than two years and fitting in was not high on my agenda. I did accept the general habits and holidays of my in-laws, splitting my winter observance between the candles of Chanukah and the tree in parlor, giving gifts on both occasions. I like giving gifts.
I grew up with a gift a night for eight nights. The gifts were never all that elaborate or expensive. Once I joined my husband’s family, I took part in the orgy of unwrapping that began Christmas morning, when all were assembled, and ended in the blink of an eye leaving a sea of gift wrap on the parlor floor.
Not every Christian family plays Categories, or any game, during the long wait between presents and dinner. Not every Christian family celebrates with presents or cards.
Somewhere in my twenties I started sending cards to celebrate mud, the first warm breezes, and green returning to the surface of the earth around me. My mother sent cards out at the start of the year, which Jews celebrate in the late summer or early fall. I never picked up that practice.
In my 30s, 40s, and 50s, I was the matriarch of a nuclear family, a writer and photographer and dabbler in the graphic arts, doing business as Amateur Graphics. I got into making cards, throwing parties at regular times of year (Woodstacking, Latke, Passover) and making my own invitations for those.
This year, I hosted two Latke parties, keeping the guest lists a bit lower than the 40 or so who would come to the parties of pre-Covid, pre-apartment times. There were six at this season’s first party, the second was a no-show for all invited guests, and a few days after Chanukah ended we had latkes at cards. It was different, not so noisy and glittery, not so many hugs, but still enjoyable, still good.
I don’t always celebrate the same holiday the same way, so why should I expect anyone else to know how to greet me, during a season that has greetings as its last name.
If I run into a new or casual acquaintance, and they stumble through an awkward “Merry … Happy …” what I get from that is their desire to share with me the joy of the season. To celebrate our shared existence in this moment of celebration.
Years ago, a former Catholic nun who had converted to Judaism told me that religion is just the language we use to talk about the greatest mystery. The days are getting wicked short, and sometimes the only glimpse of joy is the light through a window, the smile of a friend, an awkward greeting from someone you are just coming to know.
Shlomit Auciello is a writer, photographer, and human ecologist who has lived in Midcoast Maine since 1988. Letter From Away has appeared online and in print, on and off since 1992, and is published here on a weekly basis.